This opinion was written by Carl Safina and first appeared last week in The Hill. It is republished here with permission by Mr. Safina and The Hill.
This week marks the end of the public’s chance to comment on President Trump’s draft five-year plan for offshore development, a plan that would re-open America’s Arctic Ocean to future leasing and oil drilling.
The new plan would replace the current version released at the conclusion of the Obama administration, one that took years to complete, cost millions in federal tax dollars and generated millions of public comments — the overwhelming majority of which favored keeping development out of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
Trump’s plan, however, is a gift to the oil industry, a dismissal of the American public, and a retreat from addressing the challenge of climate change. His plan would see a near entirety of U.S. coastlines opened for leasing, including the Arctic Ocean where in 2015 and 2016 President Obama protected 125 million acres as ecologically sensitive marine environments. This plan would be a disaster for America’s Arctic. The risks of Arctic drilling are far too great — to the people, to the wildlife and to the future of our country.
I have traveled throughout the Arctic, from Alaska to Canada, Greenland and Svalbard. I have seen firsthand the effects that climate change is having on wildlife and communities. Here in the U.S., our Arctic waters are crucial to the Alaska Native villages along the coast that depend on them for subsistence hunting. Meanwhile, Alaska is feeling the impacts of climate change more than any other area of our country. Permafrost is melting, sea levels are rising, and communities are seeing their coastlines erode and water creep ever closer to their homes.
Since 2009, walrus unable to find ice have been increasingly hauling out on land, to the detriment of their young. Walrus need time to rest between feedings, and usually haul out onto offshore ice, with the melting ice walrus now come to land. Haul-outs of 20,000 to 40,000 animals have occurred because there was no ice in the Chukchi Sea. Haul outs in large numbers make them susceptible to disease and starvation. Easily frightened on land, walrus stampedes are deadly for calves caught in the panic.
America’s polar bear population is also becoming more reliant on the Alaska coastline as sea ice disappears, as both a refuge and for maternal denning. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a report of the wildlife at Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from 2002 to 2017, which found that Beaufort Sea polar bears are becoming more common on shore in summer and fall due to climate change and increasing decline in sea ice. According to the report: “Increased frequency of bears on land, coupled with expanding human activities, is expected to lead to greater human-polar bear interaction and conflict.”
These changes are happening because climate change caused by burning oil and coal has destroyed their homes. Now is not the time to add the possibility of a major spill. That time has passed.
I have traveled to Prince William Sound, Alaska, and have seen the decades-long effect that the Exxon Valdez oil spill has had on people’s lives there.
After Deepwater Horizon exploded, BP’s well oozed oil for 87 panicked-filled days resulting in oiled beaches, oiled wildlife and shattered human lives. However, lessons learned are soon forgotten while the chase for oil money never wanes.
As a result, the Trump administration is pushing drilling for more oil in harder, riskier places. The Arctic Ocean environment is harsh and unforgiving — it is cold, dark and icy for most of the year. There is no infrastructure in place to help when the inevitable spill occurs — the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away.
Despite having an astounding array of nearby infrastructure in the Gulf, we watched BP oil gush for months while clean-up crews flailed helplessly with ineffective ad-hoc efforts at plugging the hole.
Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is risky and reckless. This plan is risky and reckless. We need to make the transition to a clean energy economy and we must do it while keeping areas like the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans closed to leasing and development. We are the guardians of this pristine place and the wildlife that live there. We are the guardians of our climate and our children’s future. We have the power to make the right choice, but we need to do it now.
Carl Safina is the author of “A Sea of Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout.” He is also a MacArthur Fellow and holds the endowed chairman for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University. He is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center.